A decade ago, Vernon ran his Tulare County farm without the help of illegal immigrants. He had plenty of legal workers to keep the packing shed humming, irrigate and harvest the 200 acres of peaches, plums and apricots, and tend to the stuffy, smelly chicken houses.
Today, two-thirds of Vernon's 100-plus seasonal workers are illegal immigrants. He's spent the last several years brushing up on his Spanish, learning one new word a day so he can communicate with his workers.
So what's changed? Vernon -- who agreed to talk openly only if identified by his first name -- blames the government: Restrictive immigration policies make it almost impossible for low-skilled immigrants to come here legally.
He said that amnesty for illegal immigrants a quarter-century ago gave farmers in the Central Valley plenty of legal workers. But they eventually got too old for field labor or moved on to better-paying jobs, such as construction work.
"I don't like illegal immigration, and I don't think we should have it," Vernon said on a sunny afternoon in the backyard of his ranch house. "But the government doesn't provide [an adequate] way for workers to come here legally, so it's just kind of a don't-ask, don't-tell thing."
Vernon's frustration illustrates a key point: Immigrants who want to come here can't simply get in line because often there isn't a line. The government has a guest-worker program designed to fill seasonal jobs, but Central Valley farmers say it's too difficult to use. So they keep hiring illegal immigrants.
Yrene's mother tried several times in the late 1980s to get visas so she and her daughter could come to the United States legally, but they were denied each time. Finally, she gave up and immigrated illegally by telling a border-patrol guard they were tourists.
"We first tried to do the right thing," said Yrene, a 30-year-old packinghouse supervisor in Tulare County.
Her story is a common one. Contrary to what many people believe, most foreigners have little hope of getting a visa unless they already have close relatives in the United States or are well-educated and have specialized skills.
Pastor Michael Jordan, whose La Vina Covenant Church in Kerman is attended by many illegal immigrants, said a farmer once asked him why immigrants don't just come the legal way. The question surprised him.
"I had just assumed everybody knew how hard it is to get into this country," Jordan said. "But the poorest immigrants aren't going to be able to come here legally, so they're going to do what they have to do."
The immigration system works like this: A foreigner can come to the U.S. either by getting a temporary visa to stay for a specified period of time or a green card for legal permanent residency.
The government awards 140,000 green cards for workers each year, but almost all are reserved for skilled workers or people in special categories, such as fashion models. The small number of green cards set aside for low-skilled workers almost always go to illegal immigrants who are already working in the U.S., which means it's virtually impossible for a fieldworker in Mexico to get a green card.
The alternative is to marry a U.S. citizen or apply for one of the 480,000 green cards awarded each year to family members of legal U.S. residents. But no country is allowed more than 7% of green cards. As a consequence, ins some cases, Mexicans must wait 18 years or more for a family-sponsored green card.
A foreigner could also get lucky and win one of the 55,000 green cards awarded through a lottery each year. More than 9 million people applied for them last year.
In the end, only about 15% of green cards are awarded to immigrants so they can work here. Another 15% are given to refugees and asylum seekers. Almost all the rest go to relatives of legal U.S. residents. More than half of all green cards go to people already living in the U.S.
"For the vast majority of [Mexicans] there is no process other than through family members -- and most of those visa categories are backed up," said Camille Cook, an immigration attorney in Fresno.
A foreigner also could try to get a temporary visa. But the vast majority go to skilled workers, students and tourists. There are only 66,000 guest-worker visas set aside each year for seasonal, non-agriculture workers, such as ski-lift operators. The government offers an unlimited number of one-year and three-year H-2A guest-worker visas for agriculture workers, but those visas must be sponsored by an employer -- and few farmers use them.
Through August of this year, only 34 of the estimated 40,900 full-time farmers and ranchers in California asked for worker visas through the H-2A guest-worker program.
Across the country, about 60,112 H-2A visas were issued last year. About 150,000 guest workers with H-2A visas were admitted into the United States -- 5,018 were for immigrants who worked for California companies. By contrast, there are about 650,000 farmworkers in California alone -- mostly illegal immigrants.
Many farmers say they don't apply for the H-2A visas because they come with several strings attached. First, employers must advertise the available jobs to legal U.S. residents and prove that no one here will take them. Then farmers must pay the guest workers a government-regulated wage and provide free housing and transportation.
The program works well for some employers, however. The Salt Lake City-based Western Range Association, which represents sheepherders in 11 western states, including California, recruits about 900 workers each year from Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Mexico. The association spends $20,000 a year advertising the jobs to Americans, said its director, Dennis Richins.
"But they just don't want them," he said. "It's a lonesome job."
There is evidence that employers are more willing to use H-2A visas if they are required to use the government's E-Verify program, which checks an employee's legal status. After Arizona passed a law in 2007 that makes E-Verify mandatory, the number of H-2A visas issued to employers skyrocketed from 5,464 in 2006 to 98,451 in 2008.
In the Central Valley, however, many farmers say the guest-worker program doesn't work. By the time they figure out how many laborers they need to harvest crops, it's too late to recruit workers using H-2A visas, they said.
"The timelines are unrealistic," said Ryan Jacobsen, director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. "It doesn't allow us the flexibility we need because of the type of crops that we have here."
Vernon, the Tulare County farmer, said he's looked into the possibility of hiring H-2A workers but worries that the government would require him to hire American workers he doesn't need.
The guest-worker program has disadvantages for immigrants, too. If a worker loses the job he got with an H-2A visa, he has to go home. Experts say that means guest workers sometimes endure poor working conditions because they're reluctant to complain and risk their job and visa. It also means they can't move to better-paying jobs.
For years, the farming lobby has tried unsuccessfully to alter the H-2A program through a bill dubbed AgJOBS. The bill would speed up the process of getting H-2A visas approved, let employers pay a housing allowance in lieu of free housing and loosen the government-regulated wage requirements.
The bill also contains a controversial measure that has made its passage difficult: legalizing up to 1.35 million illegal immigrant farmworkers and their families.
With the government's increasing focus on auditing companies suspected of hiring illegal immigrants, farmers recognize that they may become more dependent on guest-worker visas in the future. They say that passing AgJOBS is imperative.
Marc Rosenblum, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said that if the government wants farmers to stop hiring illegal immigrants, there are two options: "You either have to make the H-2A program more employer-friendly, which is to say fewer rules, or make the threat of enforcement more imminent."
Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, would prefer the former -- and he's frustrated that the government is instead focusing on the latter.
Said Cunha: "At the end of the day, Congress has failed us."
Editor's note: In the original version of this story, it reported that 150,000 H-2A visas for guest agriculture workers were issued nationwide last year and that 5,018 of those were for immigrants who worked for California companies. In fact, those were the number of times guest workers with H-2A visas were admitted into the United States and California last year. Nationwide, the number of H-2A visas issued last year was 60,112.
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